House approves $500 million renovation and expansion of its office building

The State Office Building, home to the Minnesota House of Representatives offices. 

A Minnesota House committee has given final approval to a nearly $500 million renovation and expansion of its office building, just three hours after members went public with the ballooning cost estimate.

Under the proposal, the 90-year-old State Office Building would get a top-to-bottom remodel, and it would be expanded by roughly 50% of its current square footage. The design plans show enlarged committee hearing rooms and more office space for the House. The House Rules committee approved the spending plan on a voice vote Wednesday morning, clearing the way for some construction to start in summer 2023.

Democrats who control the committee said they considered alternatives but did not make other options public before the vote. House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler said it would cost $255 million just to maintain the State Office Building as it stands. But that doesn't improve security or disability access, nor does it factor inflation into the estimate, he said.

"I certainly would be happy to present a cheaper plan if a cheaper plan would serve the needs of the public in this building, but it won't," said Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley.

Republicans objected, noting that the proposed $500 million price tag was far more expensive that the $310 million restoration of the state Capitol during the 2010s.

"Spending this much money on a building for ourselves is something I would describe as egregious," said House GOP Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown.

Under a 2021 law, the state will sell bonds to pay for the project. The cost factors in $115 million for contingencies and inflation, Winkler said. But that is still far higher than the state's $288 million estimate that Winkler previously dismissed in a FOX 9 interview in January.

The new cost estimate was published in a draft resolution at 7 a.m. Wednesday, two hours before the Rules committee meeting. 

The design plans released at the same time weren't overly detailed. They showed generally where expanded office and committee space would go but didn't show individual offices or design features. Republicans speculated that House leadership would have access to two new patios and questioned why a news conference room was included near the speaker's office suite. Lawmakers will make specific decisions about designs and furnishings later, and those decisions will be subject to public scrutiny, Winkler said. 

The State Office Building in St. Paul, home to the Minnesota House of Representatives. (FOX 9)

Capitol Security staff have long considered the State Office Building to be the least secure building within the Capitol complex. There are multiple entry points, while small hearing rooms and hallways become crammed with people during the legislative session.

"I have concluded, as I’ve spent a lot of time here, that the current condition of the Minnesota State Office Building has vulnerabilities and increasingly threatens the House’s ability to protect the occupants," Bob Meyerson, the House's former chief sergeant at arms and a consultant to the renovation, during a Monday hearing about the building's deficiencies.

Safety issues present themselves in multiple ways, Meyerson said. He recalled how a staffer needed surgery to remove an eight-inch shard of wood paneling that got lodged in their leg. In another case, a staffer fell on a staircase and broke through a window.

Engineers with the state Department of Administration have had the State Office Building renovation at the top of their construction list since 2010, facilities director Chris Guevin said during Monday's hearing. A burst valve on the building's fourth floor flooded the building, requiring extensive repairs.

Only the House Rules committee needs to give the go-ahead before work starts. The DFL-controlled House and Republican-led Senate included a last-minute change in a 2021 budget bill that requires only the building's "primary tenant" — the House — to sign off.

Renovations of lawmakers' office space can be politically charged. In 2014, Republicans ran TV ads against Democrats over the $90 million cost of the Minnesota Senate Building. Anticipating this looming vote on the State Office Building, the GOP's campaign literature this fall compared renovated offices to the Taj Mahal.